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Rest assured that the radical reworking of history that America witnessed in the hours after Ronald Reagan died Saturday at age 93 will be temporary. While the over-the-top media coverage and official commentary regarding the fortieth President's passing has made him out to be such a noble figure that otherwise rational people have been heard to suggest that Reagan was the greatest President of the twentieth century, it will not take long for a balancing to begin. In short order, the assessments of Reagan the man, and of his tenure in the Oval Office, will be tempered.
Then, conservatives and liberals will be free to consider ths ideologically-driven--and misguided--President's record with eyes wide open.
For now, however, realism is in short supply--much to the detriment of not just of the historical record but of Reagan's memory.
All of a sudden, the man who redirected tens of billions of dollars away from domestic needs to build up the largest nuclear arsenel on the planet, ran up record deficits, saw members of his Administration investigated and indicted at a staggering rate and, himself, came close to being impeached for allowing aides to create a shadow government that peddled weapons to sworn enemies of the United States and used the profits to fund illegal wars in Central America was remade as a statesman who restored dignity and direction to his country.
While no one should begrudge Reagan's admirers this opportunity to replay those "morning in America" commercials that were deployed with such success during the last of their man's fourth runs for the presidency, it is a bit embarrassing to watch pundits and pols who know better embracing the spin.
The problem with all this hero worship is that the spin underestimates and mischaracterizes Reagan. It reduces a complex and controversial man to a blurry icon with few of the rough edges that made him one of the most remarkable political figures of his time.
That he was remarkable does not mean that he was right. Most of what Reagan did during two terms as governor of California and two terms as President can most charitably be described as "misguided." Aside from his support for abortion rights during his governorship, and his opposition to anti-gay initiatives in California during the late 1970s, Reagan displayed an amazing ability to place himself on the wrong side of the issues--and of history.
Yet, there is something that liberals can--and should--learn from Reagan.
Ronald Reagan was a master politician who understood how to package rightwing ideas in appealing enough forms to get himself elected and, sometimes, to implement his programs. Even when Americans did not like the ideas Reagan was peddling--as in 1984, when polls showed Democrat Walter Mondale's ideas were significantly more popular--they liked Reagan. Throughout his career, Reagan benefitted from the penchant of Americans to embrace politicians who seem to be at ease with their ideology. This sense that true believers are genuine creates confidence in citizens, lending itself to lines like, "Even if you disagree with him, you know where he stands." And such lines translate on election day into votes that frequently cross ideological and partisan lines.
Reagan connected as a conservative by displaying an optimism about his ideology and its potential that most right-leaning politicians before him had lacked. And that optimism transformed the conservative movement from a petty circle of grumbling cynics who believed that every glass was half empty--and probably poisoned--into energetic and, dare it be said, happy warriors on behalf of tax cuts, ever-more-expensive weapons systems, corporate welfare, privatization, deregulation and the blurring of lines between church and state.
In the years after Republican right-winger Barry Goldwater's landslide loss of the 1964 presidential election, many conservatives had doubts about whether they would ever be able to peddle their programs successfully. But Reagan did not doubt. He believed. And his faith was infectious. It helped him beat a liberal Democratic governor of California in 1966 and a moderate Democratic President in 1980. And it permitted a new generation of conservatives to feel they were part of a movement with not just principles but with a future.
As that movement grasped its future, during Reagan's presidency and in its aftermath, liberals--particularly those working within the constraints of the Democratic Party--began to be the ones who entertained doubts. Many Democrats gave up altogether on the liberal values that had carried that party to its greatest successes, and moved to the right. It was a tragic error, for which the Democratic party continues to pay.
The lesson to be learned from Reagan is not an ideological one. His ideology was wrong for America and wrong for the world--something even Reagan sometimes recognized, as when he backed away from the most extreme tenets of the conservative agenda to, for instance, defend Social Security, and when he finally agreed, at the behest of Margaret Thatcher, to negotiate with reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Rather, the lesson to be learned from Reagan is a stylistic one. He loved preaching his conservative doctrines. And he loved battling with liberals at the ballot box, at the debate podium and in the Capitol. He was a conservative first, a Republican second. He showed no respect for party decorum, challenging a sitting Republican President--Gerald Ford--who he felt was too moderate. And he was willing to lose on principle, whether in that 1976 nomination fight with Ford or, during his presidential terms, in fights with Congress over tax policy, foreign affairs or nominations to the US Supreme Court.
Just imagine if Bill Clinton had been as committed to advancing an activist liberal ideology as Reagan was to his conservative agenda. America might have a national health care plan today. Labor law reform could have been a reality, rather than an empty promise. The United States would certainly have a more progressive judiciary. And here's another notion: If Clinton or Al Gore had put as much energy and enthusiasm into educating Americans about and promoting a liberal agenda as Reagan did for his conservative ideals, the United States would today have a different Congress and President.
This willingness to fight so fearlessly and forcefully for his political faith is what made the fortieth President remarkable. It is what inspired conservatives. And it is the one thing that liberals would do well to learn from Ronald Reagan.
Looking down the list of speakers scheduled to address the Campaign for America's Future's well-attended and well-spoken "Take Back America" conference this week, it was easy to surmise that the most newsworthy remarks would be those of US Sen. Hillary Clinton, US Sen. John Edwards, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the Rev. Jesse Jackson or, perhaps, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who was honored for his crusading against Wall Street's excesses and abuses.
Edwards skipped the event, costing himself an opportunity to appear before one of the most energized and engaged progressive audiences that will gather this year--and begging questions about whether he really is ready for the primetime of a vice-presidential nomination. Dean, on the other hand, was front and center, noting the resignation of CIA director Gene Tenet with the fiery declaration that, "It's about time somebody in this Administration resigned over all the misdeeds that have gone on..." Other speakers were equally fierce in their denunciations of the Bush White House, especially NAACP chairman Julian Bond, who told the crowd, "We have a President who talks like a populist and governs for the privileged. We were promised compassionate conservatism; instead we got crony capitalism."
But the most memorable address was a thoughtful and provocative commentary on foreign affairs by an unlikely populist: billionaire George Soros. Identifying himself as someone who had "never been very active in electoral politics," Soros told the crowd of more than 2,000 progressive activists who had come to Washington from across the country that he felt compelled to involve himself deeply in the 2004 presidential election fight because "I don't think this is a normal election."
"This is a referendum on the Bush Administration's policies, the Bush doctrine and its application--its first application, which was the invasion of Iraq," Soros explained. To the cheers of the crowd, the man who has donated an estimated $15.5 million to groups such as the Media Fund and MoveOn.org that are seeking to oust the Republican President described the Bush doctrine as "an atrocious proposition."
"It's built on two pillars," he said. "One, that the United States must maintain its absolute military superiority in every part of the world; and second, that the United States has the right for preemptive action."
Designed to allow the United States to operate on the world stage without international constraints, Soros said, the Bush doctrine has created a circumstance straight out of Orwell's Animal Farm, where "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." In such a circumstance, the Hungarian-born financier said, the rest of the world looks at the United States with a mixture of concern, fear and anger.
That, he explained, is why the 2004 presidential election matters so very much.
"If we endorse the [Bush] doctrine, then we have to take the consequences: the mistrust and rage that is directed at the US today," Soros said. "If we reject it, then the blame belongs where it really should be: namely, in the policies of the Bush Administration. And we have to show that America doesn't stand for those policies."
Soros spoke eloquently to a reality that has yet to be fully impressed on the American people by John Kerry or the Democratic Party. The rest of the world is watching this year's presidential election closely. There is broad acceptence in other countries that Bush assumed the presidency under dubious premises--or, more precisely, as Soros put it, that "he was elected by one vote in the Supreme Court" rather than by a popular mandate. Thus, the 2004 election offers the American people a chance to signal to the rest of the planet that they do not share their President's worldview.
That worldview is shaped by Vice President Dick Cheney, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and a small circle of men and women who, Soros noted, are "usually described as neoconservatives." He suggested another name: "American supremacists"--who believe that "the United States is the most powerful and therefore it must use that power to impose itself on the world."
That imposition, Soros argued in the most controversial and compelling section of his address, has come at great cost to other countries and other peoples. But it may be costing the United States and the American people even more.
"I think that the picture of torture in...Abu Ghraib, in Saddam's prison, was the moment of truth for us, because this is not what this nation stands for," Soros said, to loud applause from the crowd. "I think that those pictures hit us the same way as the [September 11, 2001] terrorist attack itself--not quite with the same force because [in] the terrorist attack, we were the victims. In the pictures, we were the perpetrators; the others were the victims. But there is, I'm afraid, a direct connection between those two events, because the way that we, President Bush, conducted the war on terror, converted us from victims into perpetrators. This is a very tough thing to say, but the fact is that the war on terror as conducted by this Administration has claimed more innocent victims than the original attack itself."
Those words, fact-based as they may be, brought harsh condemnations from the usual crowd of Bush-can-do-no-wrongers. Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, who has made no secret of his determination to slander any critic of the President as hater of America, was the first out of the gate.
"For Democrats to say that the abuse of Iraqi fighters is the moral equivalent of the slaughter of 3,000 innocent Americans is outrageous," grumbled Gillespie. "Their hatred of the President is fueling a blame America first mentality that is troubling."
Gillespie was, of course, wrong. Soros went out of his way to note the differences between American values and ideals and the Bush doctrine. But, of course, such subtleties are lost on political cheapshot artists.
In fact, Soros's speech was a deeply patriotic statement, grounded in the high regard of an immigrant for his adopted land. As a man of the world, Soros spoke with sorrow about "the damage that [the Bush doctrine and its application in Iraq] has done to our standing in the world."
"We need an alternative vision," he exclaimed. "We need an alternate vision to reestablish our position in the world."
Speaking of his faith that the American people will reject Bush, and his doctrine, this November, Soros said, "We mustn't turn away from the world because we are increasingly dependent and what happens, what kind of regime prevails in Afghanistan or Iraq, does have a great bearing on our security and on our properity, so we must develop ways of intervening when there is an oppressive regime or a rogue state. But...we cannot do it alone. We must do it in cooperation with others."
Champions of losing parties and their pundit pals are always quick to claim that special elections for open US House seats don't matter. That's what Republican operatives and conservative talk radio hosts are doing today, as they try to explain away Tuesday's pick-up by the Democrat Stephanie Herseth of a previously Republican-held seat in South Dakota. Republicans are claiming that their candidate got a late start, that Herseth had better name recognition and, above all, that this was a local race in which no one could possibly find signals regarding national trends.
They are, of course, wrong.
Special elections results, especially when they follow upon one another and begin to form patterns, mean a great deal in American politics. In the last two election cycles where Democratic challengers defeated Republican Presidents, those wins were preceded by patterns of Democratic wins in special elections for House seats vacated by Republicans. Before the 1976 presidential election, Democrats swept a series of special elections in traditionally Republican districts--even winning the Michigan House seat vacated by Gerald Ford when he accepted the vice presidency in Richard Nixon's collapsing Administration. In 1976, after assuming the presidency, Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Similarly, before the 1992 election, President George Herbert Walker Bush was embarrassed when his Republican party lost special elections for seats it had held. Of particular significance was the June 4, 1991, election of Democrat John Olver to the western Massachusetts seat vacated by Republican Representative Silvio O. Conte, a close Bush ally.
Special elections for House seats have always been a big deal for savvy strategists in both parties, precisely because they know that such elections can tell us a great deal about the political moment. Early in 1985, Republicans were riding high after Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election win in 1984. A Democratic House seat in Texas came open and the GOP made a major push to win it, seeking to signal that Democrats could no longer win competitive seats in the south. The party's top operative, Lee Atwater, was dispatched to run the race of the Republican candidate, and it was no secret that the Reagan White House hoped a win in the Texas special election would cause Southern Democratic House members to switch parties in droves. Unfortunately for Atwater, Democrat Jim Chapman won the seat. Atwater admitted that he had "the dry heaves for three days" after the loss.
Will Republicans be similarly upset following the South Dakota vote?
Not exactly. Republicans are no longer a party on the rise, looking for breakthrough wins. They have power, and it is easier to defend the high ground than to take it.
But there is no question that the South Dakota result represents bad news for the GOP. Coming not long before fall elections, when Republicans must defend the White House and narrow margins of control in the House and Senate, a pair of special-election wins for Democrats running in traditionally Republican House districts will set off alarm bells within the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.
But while Democrats were celebrating Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it is important to remember that the South Dakota result is not a guarantee of Democratic destiny. It is merely a indication of what might come to pass if Democrats get their act together this fall.
For Democrats and Republicans, however, such signals matter.
During the contest that preceded Herseth's election by a 51-49 margin over Republican Larry Diedrich in Tuesday's statewide voting, the Democratic and Republican Congressional campaign committees poured more that $2 million into television advertising that targeted fewer than 300,000 South Dakota voters. Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush swept into the Plains state to campaign for Diedrich. And, after Herseth won, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was declaring early Wednesday morning that "Stephanie Herseth's win to tonight sends a clear message to President Bush and Congressional Republicans: Americans are ready for change."
Allowing for predictable hyperbole, Pelosi is hitting closer to the mark than the Republicans who claim this one election has no meaning. The Democrats do, indeed, seem to be on something of a roll in special elections for the House this year.
Between 1991 and 2003, Democrats failed to win a single special election for a House seat vacated by a Republican.
In 2004, Democrats have won two such seats: First in the rural 6th District of Kentucky, where former state Attorney General Ben Chandler secured a lopsided special election victory in February, and now in South Dakota with Herseth.
For all the protests from Republicans about how the South Dakota race was unique, it is difficult to imagine that if President Bush were riding high in the polls and public confidence in the stewardship of Republican House and Senate leaders were equally high Herseth could have prevailed. South Dakota knows how to vote for Democrats--the state sends two Democratic senators to Washington--but the House seat Herseth won had been safely in Republican hands for years. Republican Rep. John Thune regularly won the seat with as much as 75 percent of the vote until he gave it up in 2002. Former Governor Bill Janklow then won the seat with a solid margin over Herseth. (Janklow's involvement in a deadly driving accident cut his Congressional career short, provoking the special election.)
To get a sense of how much of a breakthrough Herseth's win represents for South Dakota Democrats, remember this: The party now controls the state's entire Congressional delegation for the first time since 1937, when the popular programs of Frankin Roosevelt's New Deal helped Democrats to break the historic Republican hold on the rural states of the upper Midwest.
It has been a very long time since Democrats were on the rise in rural America, in large part because the party has abandoned the economic populist, pro-small farmer themes that were traditionally its greatest strength.
Herseth's homey campaign embraced populist economic messages about the need to protect family farms and revitalize rural America. After she lost the 2002 race, Herseth went to work with the South Dakota Farmers Union, the local affiliate of the progressive National Farmers Union, and her campaign this year reflected an understanding of the issues that most concern rural America. She criticized free-trade agreements that have harmed the interests of farmers and rural communities and she strongly supported Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation that protects the interests of US farmers. In addition, Herseth attacked the Bush Administration's assaults on Medicare and the President's promotion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations that ship jobs overseas.
Is there a recipe here for Democrats as they seek to win the dozen seats they need to retake control of the House? Perhaps.
Referring to those 2000 presidential election maps that showed states won by George Bush colored red, Representative Bob Matsui, the Californian who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now says that, "Democrats can win in red states. Democrats can win in rural districts that have traditionally been in the hands of Republicans."
Matsui is getting to the point that matters. With Bush in trouble, his coattails are going to be far more slippery than they were in 2000 and 2002, even in states where he is still likely to beat Democrat John Kerry. That creates an opening for Democrats in rural areas that the party has neglected over the past decade. But it is just an opening; after years of focusing far too much attention on suburban districts, the Democratic party has lost touch with rural America. Candidates such as Herseth and Chandler, both of whom come from prominent Democratic families with deep roots in their states, can make up for the party's failings. But not every rural district will have a Herseth or a Chandler in the running. That means that the Democratic Party must change if it wants to capitalize on the opportunity that the 2004 election season seems to have handed it.
Democrats need to develop a serious rural strategy, which echoes National Farmers Union stances on trade and farm policy and promises a measure of revitalization for regions that have been in decline sometimes for decades. If they do so, they could find that the dozen seats they need to retake the House are not located in the suburbs but in rural America.
Though it does not dominate the front pages in the same way that arguments about Vietnam medals and current war catastrophes have, one of the more bitter debates that has developed during the current presidential campaign involves the question of whether Catholics should vote for John Kerry, a Catholic, for president. The Roman Catholic bishop of Colorado Springs, Michael Sheridan, recently issued a pastoral letter arguing that Catholics ought not receive communion if they vote for politicians who defy church teaching by supporting abortion rights, stem-cell research or same-sex marriage.
Kerry does support abortion rights and stem-cell research. He's not for same-sex marriage, but he's otherwise supportive of gay rights initiatives. So, in Bishop Sheridan's view, voting for the presumptive Democratic nominee would, at best, be wrong, and, at worst, downright sinful. And Sheridan is not alone in griping about Kerry's pro-choice stance; a number of bishops have threatened to deny communion to Kerry and other Catholic politicians who fail to follow church teachings on abortion and other hot-button social issues.
But what about politicians, like President Bush, who violate church teachings with regards to launching preemptive wars and imposing the death penalty? Should conservative Catholic politicians who back the president and his war be denied the Eucharist? Should their supporters sanctioned?
That's the critical question for the bishops who are going after Kerry, Wisconsin Representative David Obey and other politicians who have not always followed church teachings on social issues but who hold views that are closer to those of the Vatican on economic issues, the death penalty and matters of war and peace.
Father Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and author who is one of America's most prominent Catholic thinkers, raised the question well when he noted recently that, "(The) Pope and the national (Catholic) hierarchy also have condemned the death penalty and the war in Iraq. Are these bishops willing to deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who support the death penalty or the Iraq war? And if not, why not? Moreover, will they tell Catholics that it is a sin to support an unjust war and to vote for a candidate who is responsible for such a war? And, again, if not, why not?"
Don't get Greeley wrong. He's opposes abortion, and that puts him at odds with Kerry.
But, as Greeley notes, abortion and gay rights are not the only issues this fall. And, on some key issues, Catholics like Greeley find themselves close to Kerry, a death penalty critic who, though he is hardly anti-war, has challenged the Bush administration's management of the current fight.
"I subscribe to the consistent ethic of life that the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin enunciated some years ago," explains Greeley. "I believe abortion is wrong. I believe the death penalty is wrong. I believe preemptive war is wrong. I will take seriously the 'pro-life' enthusiasts when they are ready to protest against and denounce the death penalty. I will take them seriously when they also denounce criminally unjust wars."
Greeley gets to the heart of the matter when he suggests that, by focusing so much criticism on the pro-choice stances of Kerry and other politicians and failing to address so many other issues, church leaders such as Bishop Sheridan run the risk of appearing to be "doing the Republican National Committee's work for it."
LOS ANGELES -- John Kerry is going to have to decide who he wants to be when he grows up politically. His post-primary campaign has been so dramatically unfocused and ineffectual that -- even as George Bush has taken more serious blows to his credibility than any sitting president since Richard Nixon in the first years of his second term -- Kerry has not been able to open up a lead nationally or in the essential battleground states.
Kerry is making moves to muscle up his Democratic presidential candidacy, with a $25-million let's-make-some-introductions advertising campaign, an effort to sharpen his message and a sped-up vice presidential search. The next month will be critical. If he can open a five- to eight-point lead nationally and establish leads that mirror those of Al Gore's 2000 wins in Democratic-leaning battleground states, his campaign will be sufficiently renewed to make the race. If, on the other hand, he continues to hold even nationally and trail behind Gore's showings in the states that will tip the balance in the Electoral College, there will come a round of questioning -- prior to the Democratic National Convention in July -- about whether the party is making the right choice.
Kerry will still be the nominee. Modern political parties lack the flexibility to clean up messes, no matter how obvious the need. The was proven in 1996, when the Republican National Convention dutifully nominated Bob Dole, despite the fact that no honest observer thought he had a chance of winning.
Will Kerry be the Dole of 2004? That's the question that the Massachusetts senator needs to sort out this month.
The decisions Kerry makes now will determine whether his campaign is for real. And the pressure for some kind of signal is only going to increase as the month passes.
In southern California this week to contribute to Robert Greenwald's upcoming documentary on media issues, I had a chance to talk with political activists, journalists and entertainment-industry insiders. They were all for getting rid of George Bush. But they were also, to a one, convinced that Kerry's campaign wasn't doing what was necessary to accomplish that task. They still thought Kerry would carry California -- a must-win state for the Democrats -- but they were worried that he was slipping even there. And they were convinced that his failure to come on strong was eliminating enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Writer and activist Arianna Huffington, who has written a good new book about the Bush crowd, Fanatics and Fools, was particularly concerned. A none-of-the-above voter in 2000, she's determined to achieve regime change in the White House this year and she recognizes that Kerry offers the only realistic hope for sending Bush back to Texas. But she is so worried about Kerry's cautious campaigning that she has penned a letter to the candidate, which she hopes hundreds of thousands of activists will sign. The letter urges the presumptive Democratic nominee to, "Offer voters a bold moral vision of what America can be. A vision that is bigger than the things that divide us. A vision that brings hope and soul back to our politics and appeals to more than voters' narrow self-interests. A vision that makes America once again a respected force for good in the world.
(You can learn more about Huffington's recent projects by visiting her www.fanaticsandfools.org website.)
I don't know whether a letter will get John Kerry's attention, let alone whether it will get him to recognize that his campaign really is in trouble. But I do know that it is right to target messages toward Kerry, himself.
Again and again, people asked me: Who is advising Kerry? The answer is that the names don't really matter.
Like any soon-to-be-nominated presidential candidate, Kerry is getting advice from every corner. The noxious Democratic Leadership Council, which every election season commands Democrats to run as Republican-lite centrists, is indeed bending his ear. But Kerry is getting advice from credible and competent sources, as well.
The problem is that the senator seems to be having a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to messaging.And, unfortunately, this is a challenge that only he is in a position to resolve.
No one else but the candidate can cure what ails this presidential campaign. That's because only the candidate can send the a broad and meaningful message that says his campaign really does promise fundamental change. Kerry cannot count on the "Beat Bush" message to carry him to victory in November. Nor should he assume that just promising to be kinder and gentler than Bush will be enough.
John Kerry needs to present himself as the candidate who offers America a clean break from Bushism.
If he does so, he will win.
If he fails to do so, he will be this year's Bob Dole -- without the sense of humor.
In another illustration of the current administration's commitment to keeping the American people in the loop, the White House demanded that there be no recording or formal transcription of today's joint interview of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney by the 9/11 commission.
The members of the independent commission investigating the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have accepted this ridiculous pretense because they know it is the only way to get the president and the vice president to aid efforts to understand and combat the threat of terrorism.
The lack of a recording or an official transcript will, legal scholars suggest, afford Bush and Cheney an opportunity to deny statements, question interpretations and challenge conclusions. "It gives them more maneuverability in case someone slips up or says something he regrets," explains New York University law Professor Stephen Gillers.
In other words, in the unlikely event that Bush or Cheney might let a snippet of truth slip out, the elaborate White House spin machine will be able to take advantage of the deliberately vague record to "clarify" the statement.
The absence of a taped record also allows the administration to avoid the embarrassment of having to explain why, when the commander-in-chief is asked questions, the vice president answers.
The reason for the tandem testimony by Bush and Cheney is, of course, all too obvious. Were the pair to testify apart from one another, their stories might well be different, as there is some doubt about the extent to which Bush was kept in the loop.
Despite the fact that the tandem testimony is necessary in order for Bush and Cheney to keep their stories straight, it is still awfully embarrassing. Does anyone really believe that the rest of the world has failed to notice that, when the leader of the most powerful country on the planet is asked to address paramount issues of national security, he must be accompanied by a minder?
The absurdity of the president and vice president demanding that there be no official record of their meeting with the commission would be the subject of a congressional outcry and a constant media battering of the administration if Bush and Cheney were members of another political party. Just imagine if Bill Clinton had asked that there be no official record of obviously troubling and politically damaging statements he made during the interviews and inquisitions of the Republican-sponsored "sexgate" investigations of the late 1990s. The screams of outrage would still be echoing today.
Of course, the issues being explored by the 9/11 commission are far more serious matters than those involved in the Clinton investigations, which argues even more strongly for a permanent and precise record of what is said.
But Bush and Cheney will get their pass from the commission, the Congress and a cheerleading media. The willingness of major media to go along with the charade is particularly galling, but not surprising in an era when the White House press corps tends to ask probing questions along the lines of "how high?" in response to presidential press secretary Scott McClellan's regular requests that they jump to the right.
As has so often been the case during this dark passage in the American journey, citizens seeking after an accurate report on the affairs of state will need to turn to "America's finest news source": The Onion.
The Onion's front page this week features a photo of Bush speaking as Cheney sips from a glass. The headline: "Cheney wows Sept. 11 commission by drinking glass of water while Bush speaks."
History usually provides a roadmap for the present. Unfortunately, leaders fail to consult the map.That's certainly been the case as the 9/11 Commission has prepared to hear behind-closed-doors testimony from Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush at the same time.
Members of the commission and, for the most part, members of congress, have accepted the secret-testimony arrangement. But why?
Presidents have testified before investigatory committees before. And they have done so on comparable issues. Former US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman reminds us that in 1974, amid the national firestorm that followed President Gerald Ford's pardon of former President Richard Nixon, Ford voluntarily appeared before a House subcommittee that was reviewing the pardon.
"The President came before the subcommittee, made an opening statement and was questioned by the House members. Although each of us had only five minutes, I was able to ask the President directly whether there had been a deal with Nixon about the pardon. The public could determine by Ford's demeanor and his words whether to believe his emphatic denial of any deal," recalls Holtzman, who as a young member of the House was a key player in the Judiciary Committee's investigation of the Watergate scandal.
"The fact that important questions could be posed directly to the President and the fact that the President was willing to face down his severest critics in public were healthy things for our country. And, not even the staunchest Republicans complained that the presidency was being demeaned."
By recalling the history, Holtzman reminds us that President Bush could, and should, simply appear before the 9/11 Commission. There is no Constitutional crisis here. There is no dangerous precedent that could be established. And there is no question of proportionality--certainly, the intensity of the demands for an explanation of the Nixon pardon can appropriately compared with those for an explanation of how the current administration responded to terrorist threats before and after the September 11, 2001 attacks. "As with the Nixon pardon, the events of 9/11 have caused huge national concern," explains Holtzman. "The victims' families--as well as millions of others--have asked why it happened and what if anything could have been done to avert the tragedy. These are simple, reasonable questions."
The best response to those simple, reasonable questions, Holtzman argues, would be for Bush to volunteer to testify in public and under oath to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States.
"Bush would be wise to take a page out of Ford's book. Americans could then decide themselves whether to agree or disagree with Bush's pre-9/11 conduct. They want to trust their President. They want to know that he acted with the best of motives, that he used good judgment and that he is a leader--in other words, that as chief executive, he knows when and how to mobilize the government to take action," Holtzman asserted, in an opinion piece she wrote this week for the New York Daily News.
"If Bush refuses to answer reasonable questions in public, the indelible impression is left that he has something to hide. That impression is reinforced by the White House's insistence that Vice President Cheney sit with Bush at the hearing. The President cannot afford to convey the image that he is afraid to appear on his own. And neither the 9/11 Commission nor the public should permit a behind-closed-door session for anything except national security information. The same principle should have applied to the testimony of former President Bill Clinton. "
Holtzman's wise comments beg one question: Why didn't anyone think to put this former member of Congress and native New Yorker on the 9/11 commission? There are a number of commissioners who share her experience--including, of course, Richard Ben-Veniste, who headed US Justice Department's Watergate Task Force from1973 to 1975. But it would seem that the commission could use someone who recognizes, as Holtzman does, that: "There is no better crucible than a public hearing to help ensure that the truth will come out."
Condoleezza Rice's amen corner on the right was going to hail her Thursday appearance before the 9/11 commission as a stunning success no matter what she said. And so they did, with President Bush declaring that she had done "a terrific job," Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Shelby describing her as "very candid" and radio personality Gordon Liddy announcing, "a star is born."
But that was just spin. On Thursday, a star flamed out. Permanently.
Despite the praise from her president and the Republican establishment that since the 1980s has been grooming her as a candidate for national office, Rice's appearance dealt her political ambitions a fatal blow.
This is not to say that Rice's performance was the complete disaster that her bitterest critics imagined. The national security adviser stayed on message, remained reasonably composed and delivered her talking points about as ably as a deputy press secretary. Admittedly, she seemed brittle and ill-prepared when questioned by Democrats Bob Kerrey and Tim Roemer. She filibustered when it would have been better to be frank. And she did not inspire confidence in her abilities with the complaint that, while she had been warned about the presence of terrorist sleeper cells in the United States, she had not been told how to deal with them. But Republican commissioners, especially former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, eased the tension by tossing Rice enough softball questions so that she could appear to be in only slightly over her head.
Unfortunately for Rice, however, her testimony will be remembered for a single exchange.
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste asked Rice if she could recall the title of President Bush's daily briefing document for August 6, 2001, which crossed her desk more than a month before operatives associated with Osama bin Laden's al-Queda network attacked the world Trade Center and the Pentagon. After several inept attempts to avoid the question, Rice finally answered, "I believe the title was, 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
Rice knew she was in trouble; she claimed immediately that the August 6 briefing paper was a speculative document, not a real warning. The administration's defenders then spent the rest of the day trying to convince Americans that they had not heard what they had, in fact, heard. But, as 9/11 widow Lorie Van Auken correctly noted after the title was revealed, "That pretty much says it all."
What it says, above all, is that Condoleezza Rice will forever be remembered as the national security adviser who knew bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States but who, by all indications, felt no great sense of urgency about that threat. On "The Daily Show," host John Stewart simply played the tape of Rice's response to Ben-Veniste's inquiry. It got the best laugh of the night.
Fair or not, the impression that Rice created on Thursday will spell the end of her political prospects. She will never win a place on a national Republican ticket as a candidate for president or vice president. No matter how much Republican operatives may try to spin her back onto the short list, it is simply impossible to imagine that Rice, or anyone else, could survive the repeated airings of that exchange in an election year.
Because Rice has always been a political player, as opposed to a genuine security analyst or strategist, this is the dramatic news from her appearance before the 9/11 commission.
Remember, as recently as late February, political reporters and strategists were buzzing about the prospect that Rice would end up on a 2004 or 2008 GOP ticket. In late February, when rumors swirled that Vice President Dick Cheney might be dumped from Bush's ticket this year, the National Journal mentioned two possible replacements: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rice. The Reuters news service sent the story of the Rice-replaces-Cheney speculation around the world. Former presidential adviser Dick Morris announced that Rice was one of only two Republicans who could win the presidency in 2008 -- the other being Secretary of State Colin Powell. Conservative activists launched a "Bush-Rice '04" website at www.bushrice04.org, and declared, "our mission is to convince President Bush that his best chance at reelection, and the Republican party's best chance for victory in 2008, is to choose Condoleezza Rice as his running mate in the 2004 presidential election."
The Bush/Rice website will keep campaigning to make the national security adviser the Republican nominee for vice president. In low-level Republican circles, Rice will continue to be portrayed as vice presidential or presidential timber, just as some of the faithful continue to imagine that former Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris will someday be a U.S. Senator.
But it is a fool's mission now.
Condoleezza Rice is not finished as a Bush administration insider. But she is, unquestionably, finished as a candidate for vice president or president.
In St. Louis to toss out the ceremonial first pitch in Monday's season-opening baseball game between the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers, George w. Bush was steered by an aide toward an Associated Press reporter who had a question about the Iraq imbroglio.
"So who's the AP person?" demanded Bush.
"I am," the reporter replied.
"You are?" grumbled Bush. "Well, ask it."
"Sir, uh, in regard to...," the reporter began.
Bush stopped the journalist at mid-sentence. In a scolding voice, he demanded to know: "Who're you talking to?"
The AP quickly corrected himself. "Mr. President," he said.
Bush--who in 2002 acknowledged that "If this was a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator"--was satisfied that he had been properly addressed. He then allowed the reporter to continue. However, his reply to the question was typically short and perfunctory.
Perhaps, the reporter would have gotten a better answer if he had just said, "Your Highness..."
Poor Bill Frist, he can't be proud of what he has become. He ran for the Senate with a simple mission: prevent health care reforms that might pose a threat to his family's $800-million stake in Columbia/HCA, the nation's leading owner of hospitals. There was never going to be anything honorable about his service, but nothing all that embarrassing in a Washington that welcomes self-serving senators with open arms.
Frist was a comfortably forgettable legislator -- good hair, good suit, bad politics -- until former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, went all segregationist at States Rights Party presidential candidate Strom Thurmond's going-away party. The Bush administration needed another prissy southerner to ride herd on the Senate. Frist fit the bill, moved into the nice office and became a comfortably forgettable Senate Majority Leader.
With the Republican-controlled Congress rendered irrelevant by its complete subservience to the Bush administration's political agenda, Frist quietly went back to the business of protecting the family business.
Then the Bush administration got in trouble. The ex-Secretary of the Treasury, the former Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council Staff and, now, the former counterterrorism chief in the Bush and Clinton White Houses had all come forward to suggest that the Bush administration really had missed the point of the war of terrorism -- badly. Suddenly, Americans were waking up to the fact that the rest of the world already knew: Iraq was not tied to al-Qaeda, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no serious threat to the United States or its neighbors.
The administration had few credible defenders left. They couldn't send Bush out in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. Vice President Dick Cheney was still trying to explain that Halliburton really hadn't set new standards for war profiteering. And National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was having a very hard time explaining that she really, really, really did know what al-Qaeda was before counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explained it to her.
The administration needed a Spiro Agnew to go out and start calling people names. And Bill Frist was ready to mumble.
Last week, Frist took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Clarke. "Mr. Clarke makes the outrageous charge that the Bush Administration, in its first seven months in office, failed to adequately address the threat posed by Osama bin Laden," Frist began. "I am troubled by these charges. I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation's most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001."
That was rich, considering the fact that Frist's Senate service has been all about profiting from the suffering of the nation. By blocking needed health care reforms, pushing for tort reforms that would limit malpractice payouts and supporting moves to privatize Medicare, Frist has pumped up his family's fortunes at the expense of Americans who are lack access to health care. As Mother Jones explained some years ago, "Some companies hire lobbyists to work Congress. Some have their executives lobby directly. But Tennessee's Frist family, the founders of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital conglomerate, has taken it a step further: They sent an heir to the Senate. And there, with disturbingly little controversy, Republican Sen. Bill Frist has co-sponsored bills that may allow his family's company to profit from the ongoing privatization of Medicare."
Frist has delivered well for his family. That $800-million stake in HCA that his father, and brother had at the time Frist was elected in 1994 shot up in value over the decade that followed. Frist's brother, Thomas, has moved up steadily on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people in recent years. In 2003, Forbes estimated that Thomas Frist Jr. was worth $1.5 billion. According to Forbes: "source: health care."
So Bill Frist certainly knows a thing or two about profiteering from human misery.
Of course, Frist wasn't really concerned about September 11 suffering. He was simply looking for any way to discredit Clark. The problem was that Clarke has already made a commitment to donate substantial portions of the earnings from his book, "Against All Enemies," to the families of the 9/11 dead and to the widows and orphans of Special Forces troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Frist didn't just come off as a hypocrite, he looked like a fool. But he looked like an even bigger fool when, in an attempt to claim Clarke had lied to Congress, Frist demanded that transcripts of Clarke' 2002 congressional testimony to be declassified. Clarke's response? "I would welcome it being declassified But not just a little line here and there -- let's declassify all six hours of my testimony." Then, Clarke added, "Let's declassify that memo I sent on January 25. And let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later, on September 4. And let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't. Let's go further. The White House is now selectively finding my e-mails, which I would have assumed are covered by some privacy regulations, and selectively leaking them to the press. Let's take all of my e-mails and memos that I sent to the national security adviser and her deputy from January 20 to September 11, and let's declassify all of it."
Suitably shot down, Frist then took to defending Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify in public and under oath before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United State -- only to have the administration decide to have her testify.
Before last week, there was talk that Frist might replace Dick Cheney if the Bush political team decided to force the vice president off the 2004 ticket -- an admittedly dubious prospect, as Cheney remains firmly in charge both of the policy and political operations at the White House. After last week, however, even Republican loyalists had to be wondering whether Frist is good for anything other than taking care of the family business.